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Starting up in Nairobi

July 22, 2011

After three weeks in Nairobi, I finally have a relatively stable Internet connection and my own bed to sleep on (in my previous home, there were ten of us were staying in a 3-bedroom apartment – you can do the math!). We have just moved into a 7 bedroom house in Kileleshwa with a hanging balcony and one-acre backyard that is to be used as a workshop for the engineers.  On the one hand, the weather here in Nairobi is beautiful – a rare combination of high altitude and close proximity to the equator produces temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees year round. On the other hand, I have never seen worse traffic in a city; multiple times I have exited a bus and out-walked the bus to my destination by 15 minutes. I’m still working on my Swahili, but luckily most Kenyans understand my English (especially if I speak with a pseudo Indian-African accent).

I’m working for Sanergy, a start-up founded at MIT that makes sanitation accessible, affordable, and hygienic for residents of urban slums. Starting with the slums in Kenya, where 8 million people resort to open defecation and unsanitary pit latrines, Sanergy’s “build – collect – convert” approach solves the sanitation crisis in a simple and sustainable manner. Sanergy has developed a low-cost, high-quality toilet that provides users with a safe, clean and private experience. Sanergy franchises these toilets throughout the slums to local residents, who earn a viable income through operating the toilet. Sanergy collects the waste on a daily basis from each site and converts it into useful byproducts such as fertilizer, biogas and electricity. In five years, Sanergy aims to serve 500,000 people through a network of 6,000 toilets.

My current project involves developing the “franchising” component of Sanergy – essentially selling a “business in a box” to individuals in the slums who will own and operate the toilet. Yes, a toilet can be a business! In fact, most everyone in the slums of Nairobi pays up to 5 Kenyan Shillings (the equivalent of $0.06) per use. If we can provide a high-quality, low-cost toilet to an entrepreneur in the slum, he will be able to generate a living that is three times the average income. Of course, a toilet is not enough – you need business training, marketing and branding materials, cleaning materials, a hand washing kit. Most importantly, since few entrepreneurs have the cash to pay for a toilet – they need financing. Thus, we are partnering with microfinance organizations to secure financing for the toilet business. Oh have my past two years working in microfinance in India been useful!

So, what does a typical work-day look like?

  • Wake up at 6:30 a.m., turn the water heater on, and make breakfast.
  • Get ready and out the door by 8:00 am. Take 2 mutatus to a meeting with a microfinance bank in Kilimani.
  • At 10:00 am, walk to the nearest coffee shop, drink delicious Kenyan coffee and crank out emails.
  • 11:00 am, meet a Nairobi-based organization that is working with sanitation.
  • 12:00 pm, take two more mutatus to visit one pilot toilet site in Kibera (our other site is in Lunga Lunga).
  • 3:00 pm, help Joseph, the chemical engineer that is converting waste into fertilizer build a composting pit – sawing plywood, wooden posts, and nailing them together.
  • 5:30 pm, meet with my team-lead David to discuss plans for extended fieldwork in the slums. He will be leaving next week for the Echoing Green fellowship in the New York.
  • 7:00 pm, eat dinner: Kenyan Chappatis and Sukuma ( I introduced my favorite Masala Chili sauce to the Sanergy team, and now everyone uses it!). For dessert: Mangoes.
  • 8:00 pm, conference-call with a social enterprise in India to learn from their experience in micro-franchising.
  • 9:30 pm, continue to build out the financial model for the franchisee – figuring out cost and revenue projections over time.
  • 12:00 am, prep for a morning meeting with an NGO that works with informal schools in the slums of Mathare and a social entrepreneurship “marketplace” at the Red Court Hotel, hosted by the Aga Khan Foundation.
  • 2:00 am, pass out on my mattress in the guest wing (still waiting for beds, curtains, and comforters!).

But, I have not only been doing work. Over the weekends I have been eating delicious food (Habesha is my favorite so far), and attending a slew of ex-pat events: Happy Hours, 4th of July BBQs, Ultimate Frisbee on Sundays. My first week I went to Masai Mara with 50 other Indians – a perfect budget trip in a budget bus. I was fortunate enough to see the Big 5 on the trip. The best part: constant food and tea. Last weekend, I went horseback riding in Nairobi National Park and spent the afternoon at an amazing outdoor concert – “Blankets and Wine.” I’m hoping to go to Mombasa two weekends from now, and relax on the beaches of Diani.

Until then, I’ll be running around Nairobi, building economic and financial models, taking field interviews, and learning how to lay concrete and compost.

– Shashin Chokshi (BOS ’11)

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